“I Don’t Enjoy It.”: Gregg Popovich and Ja Morant are struggling in the bubble

Gregg Popovich is 71 and Ja Morant will turn 21 on Monday. There are 50 years and five NBA championships that separate the two, and yet they both share in the emotional pain the bubble can cause.

Popovich is not the only NBA coach wearing a mask on the bench here at Disney, but he is the only one conducting all of his pregame press conferences from his hotel room.

“I don’t enjoy it,” he said Friday, when asked if there was anything about the race for eighth in the West, in which his Spurs are a central player, that he found enjoyable.

“Would you like to go be sequestered some place, for weeks on end?” he continued. “The answer to that is no.”

Grizzlies star rookie Ja Morant has struggled with life away from his family, but Friday hit a little different. It was his daughter Kaari’s first birthday and he, of course, would not be there to celebrate.

“I talked with my parents and told them it was probably one of the toughest days of my life, not being able to be at my daughter’s first birthday party,” Morant said.

Popovich and Morant are also locked in the same race for that last slot in the West playoffs.

The Grizzlies entered the bubble as the 8th seed, and remain in that position despite their bubble struggles. They hold a 1 game lead over the Portland Trailblazers, and just 2 games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and the Phoenix Suns.

While the Blazers and Grizzlies have been all in on the present, the Spurs have focused more on getting better each day, and developing their players.

That isn’t the only thing Popovich has differed form his companions about.

Virtually all of the coaches in the race, from Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins to Portland’s Terry Stotts, to Phoenix’s Monty Williams, have been asked about the seeding games, all of who have used Major League Baseball’s “pennant race” as a metaphor.

When Popovich was asked about “the pennant race,” he gave an answer only he could give.

“What? Pennant race? Is this baseball season? What’s the question? Am I enjoying the pennant race? Rudy (Gay, who was walking by), help me. I don’t even know how to answer that. It’s the NBA playoffs.”

What is happening in this race, so far as Memphis and the Spurs are concerned, is rather franchise altering.

The Grizzlies, with their sure-thing Rookie of the Year in Morant and Jenkins, a first-year coach who will place in Coach of the Year balloting, are at the beginning of their run. Fresh legs, fresh messages, and all the promise in the world.

For the Spurs, it may be the end of one of the finest eras in NBA history — a.k.a. Popovich’s career — which includes those five rings, three Coach of the Year awards and 22 consecutive playoff appearances.

Popovich has two seasons left on his contract, but he could decide to retire before. The decision was always his, even before a global pandemic struck, via a virus that poses its most serious health risks to the elderly. That’s why Popovich wears a mask everywhere, even while coaching, even while doing those Zoom press conferences in his hotel room.

“I don’t want to die,” Popovich said last month in an appearance on TNT. “I wear my mask all the time, I took it off to talk to you guys. It behooves each of us who might be a little bit older to take it very seriously. I wear my mask to practice. I only take it off when I’ve got something to say, because I am concerned.”

No one knows what the next NBA season will look like, but if it includes travel and staying in hotels all over the U.S., and there is no vaccine, this could be the end of Popovich’s career.

So perhaps all of this, the weighty issue of a possible retirement by a legend, and a streak of making the playoffs that started in his second season, back in 1997-98, is why he and his staff keep the focus not winning at all cost, but rather the day by day experience.

On Friday, Patty Mills did not play. He is not injured, but is sitting games out intermittently so younger players can get a chance, according to a team official. DeMar DeRozan, who turned 31 on Friday, scored just 13 points.

The Spurs gave major minutes to three players — Keldon Johnson, Quinndary Weatherspoon, and Drew Eubanks — with no playoff experience, and Lonnie Walker IV, one of their best players on the season, just has six playoff games to his name.

“This is all about development, I’ve said that from the beginning,” Popovich said. “The young guys, they get evaluated, we see them playing together and we get to determine how valuable they are in terms of the guys we want to move forward with.”

Whether the guys are moving forward with Popovich will be up to him, in a decision that will come after the Spurs are done, whenever that may be.

While the franchise is more focused on development, the players on the court also want to win, more so for Popovich than themselves.

Derrick White, a Popovich favorite who even found his way onto the Team USA roster Popovich coached in China last summer, despite more talented, accomplished players being available, spoke about that sentiment.

“We haven’t talked that much about the playoff streak, but obviously we know it’s there,” White said. “We want to develop but we want to win.”

As for the Grizzlies and Morant, their 121-92 victory over the OKC Thunder, gave the team new life after 4 straight losses to start the bubble.

Morant finished the game with 19 points and 9 assists, and dedicated the game to his daughter.

“The thing I gave her today was a win, so hopefully she’s thankful for that and all the gifts she’s got back at the house,” Morant said.

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